Feb 21, 2008
He took all the orthodox positions. He had the deep pockets, the executive experience, and the disciplined organization. He had endorsements from the likes of Rick Santorum, Paul Weyrich, Bob Jones, and Michael Novak (plus a nice plug from a certain Catholic hack). He had far and away the best hair.
But today Mitt Romney is licking his wounds and pondering his future, rather than looking ahead to a general election campaign.
A week after his mildly surprising (if only for its timing) announcement that he'd removed himself from the GOP primary race, and a day after casting his lot with former foe John McCain, it's time to take stock of why the Romney effort failed, and what I think those reasons might tell us about the future of Republican-brand conservatism.
Reason One: Too many social conservatives didn't trust Romney's "conversion."
Exit polls show that in almost all the states where Romney competed, he won either a plurality or an equal share of pro-life and highly conservative voters (typically a greater portion than eventual presumptive nominee McCain). Yet it's clear that Romney's social-liberal past -- particularly the pro-abortion statements he made while running for (and serving as) governor of Massachusetts, the abortion provisions of his administration's health care plan, and his failure to wield executive power to stave off court-imposed gay marriage there -- stuck in the craw of a not-insignificant number of social conservative voters.
When Romney embarked on an effort to woo those same people by trumpeting his pro-life "conversion" and by taking action against embryonic stem cell research funding, he was predictably hit with derision from the liberal secular media -- for having "flip-flopped," yes, but also, significantly, for the positions he flip-flopped to. One wonders if he'd had a conversion away from pro-life principles (as, say, Ted Kennedy or Al Gore had done), whether he would have been applauded rather than censured.
Nonetheless, the flip-flopper name stuck, not just with Romney's liberal enemies but with some conservatives as well, who, instead of welcoming him as a neophyte in their cause, became confirmed in their suspicions that Romney's change of heart was a sham, or, at best, directed by the political winds. He had never actually betrayed pro-lifers -- that is, posed pro-life but then turned and governed pro-abortion -- but apparently enough of them believed he would, if given a chance.
What does this teach us? That a goodly number of social conservatives are gun shy about past betrayals by Republican pro-lifers-of-convenience, and they will no longer suffer to be served Republicans whose past credentials are less than sparkling.
Reason Two: Huckabee split his support.
It also didn't help Romney that such voters had a ready alternative: Baptist minister Mike Huckabee. Right from the start, Romney's careful plan of building momentum with those painstakingly wooed social conservatives took a body blow when Iowa's ideologically pure caucus-goers handed Huckabee a stunning victory. From that point the fight was on, and in most states where Romney competed, he and Huckabee would split the religious and social-conservative votes, while McCain (in the serendipitous absence of his natural predator Rudy Giuliani) was left alone to Hoover up the lion's share of social moderate and pro-abortion votes (and, it should be said, many pro-life votes too, especially in his second home of New Hampshire).
At a Romney town hall meeting I attended in New Hampshire, a youngish mother who oozed "Evangelical homeschooler" from her every pore asked him what he would do if faced with a choice between two candidates: one with whom he agreed on most issues but not religion, and one whom he liked less politically, but shared religious convictions with.
Romney deadpanned, "This is a purely hypothetical scenario, right?"
The audience laughed, because the writing was on the wall: Romney had a serious rival for social/religious conservatives, and it was Mike Huckabee. All the way through to Super Tuesday he would ensure that no single clear alternative to McCain (who, despite a dutiful pro-life record, and despite having done some fence-mending and wooing of his own, historically had dismissed and antagonized the Religious Right) would emerge. Indeed, Huckabee's strong showing since Romney's departure may be owed in no small part to his inheritance of Romney's former supporters.
Huckabee made life harder for Romney in other areas. He would tack hard right on immigration, further diluting Romney's distinctive appeal when compared to McCain. He also provided the other "executive" choice (no senator has been elected president in 40-plus years), and after developing what National Review's Rich Lowry called a "man crush" on John McCain, seemed to revel in forming a united front with McCain against Romney.
What does this teach us? The perils of political divide-and-be-conquered. Social-religious conservatives will exert the most influence, on the Republican Party and on the culture, when they can unite behind one candidate -- or bill, or referendum, or initiative.
Reason Three: Romney's over-groomed image.
A GQ blogger who'd traveled with the Romney campaign remarked how shocking it was to see the man once with his shirt wrinkled and hair (slightly) mussed, so Ken Doll-perfect was the image he presented. Romney was the distilled essence of TV-commercial Mormonism: a "wholesome, airtight package of a man" whose plastic smile never wavered; a man who never drank or cussed in his life; a man who said "gosh" and "neat" and probably "golly." Out campaigning with his pretty wife and his strapping, genetically superior sons, is it any surprise that many people looked at him and said, as one of Romney's own staff ruefully admitted, "He doesn't understand people like me"?
And he had money, too -- a point that Romney's opponents and a complicit media never let the people forget. Huckabee implied that Romney resembled "the guy who laid you off." McCain crowed that he served his country for "patriotism, not profit" (whatever that meant). And news stories everywhere tagged the epithet "millionaire" to Romney's name as if it appeared somewhere on his birth certificate. As if non-millionaires ever ran for president these days. But the silver spoon stuck in Romney's mouth, and it gagged him.
Romney's personality also grated on some, for reasons both just and unjust. Early in the campaign, especially, he was wooden on the trail, no lover of retail politics. He courted social conservatives and hunters, but never seemed totally at ease in their worlds, which surely helped feed the perception of his insincerity. The more the "political weather vane" tag stuck on him, the easier it became to think of him as an empty, soulless suit.
Yet there was humanity to Romney. He could be genuinely funny, like when Jay Leno asked him whether he (Romney) or Ted Kennedy had the biggest head, to which Romney replied on beat that Leno too would do well in that competition. He showed himself to be unmistakably devoted to his high-school-sweetheart wife, his five sons (have we ever had a president with five sons?), and numerous grandkids. In debates he was relentlessly positive and polite to his opponents -- and you got the sense it wasn't forced. Yes, there was real humanity in Romney; but it was of the Ned Flanders variety.
And it left too many people cold. "Robotic" they called him; phony; too perfect. Or, at best, too cerebral -- good at running meetings in the board room, not inspiring a nation from the Oval Office. Huckabee's earthiness and McCain's irascibility only made him look paler by comparison -- and the two rivals played up this difference. Huck needled Romney for taking the skin off his fried chicken. McCain cast himself as a gutsy leader of men and Romney as a technocrat, prompting GOP strategist Don Schnur to quip that "John McCain and his friends used to beat up Mitt Romney at recess."
What does that teach us? Perhaps that Republican voters seem to want a little sandpaper in their candidates, or at least a down-home quality (surely the latter was Bush's greatest asset). And perhaps they want to see some of their own foibles reflected in their leaders, rather than have their impatience, ignorance, and baldness thrown into sharp relief by them.
Reason Four: He never caught on in the South.
In most states Romney won a plurality of self-described conservatives, and won, or at least hung in tight, with Evangelicals and social conservatives. But not in South Carolina, where he barely raised a blip. He struggled in Georgia and the Florida panhandle.
Surely reasons two and three apply here in part. Son of the South Huckabee, and Thompson in South Carolina, siphoned off potential votes. And Romney's image, which played well in the North and West, was simply the square peg to the South's round hole.
What does this teach us? That the South is still the GOP kingmaker. And perhaps that there's still enough of a cultural disconnect between the I-95 corridor and the "rest of America" -- represented by the South and the Heartland -- to prevent any fast-talking, cold-blooded Yankee from ever being a viable national candidate. Just a guess, though -- because I'm one of those Yankees myself.
Reason Five: The M-word.
At the end of the day, I think we have to conclude, sadly, that Romney's religion was a net negative.
I must confess that I was myself first repulsed by the thought of a Mormon president, purely on theological grounds. That Mormonism is today pulling so many Catholics -- particularly in South and Central America -- away from the Faith and into its false (not to mention goofy, when you dig into it a little) religion should trouble all our hearts, and it caused mine to be initially set against candidate Romney.
But then I had something of a conversion myself. First, I was finally able to check my initial (emotional) anti-Mormon response. We don't pick presidents to be our national pastor; and as for Romney's moral-religious foundation as a man (which is important), I concluded that Mormonism was sufficiently a part of the broad Western religious stream that flowed out of Jerusalem; Romney was a distant cousin, but one of the family nonetheless.
Then the thought of a Mormon president actually intrigued me -- not in spite of my Catholicism, but because of it. For who, I thought, would be more of a kindred spirit to Catholics: a nominal member of this or that fading liberal Protestant denomination, or a faithful adherent to a somewhat strange and misunderstood high-doctrine faith that has endured persecution in this country, and that is subject even today to secular ridicule for its old-fashioned views on sex, marriage, and procreation? You know, like ours?
In this line of reasoning I appear to have been part of a distinctly tiny minority. From the time that Huckabee wondered aloud (and, coincidentally, near a microphone) whether Mormons believed Satan and Jesus to be brothers, it was clear that no noble speech was going to take Romney's religion out of play. Evangelical voters like the woman from that town hall meeting faced a choice: Romney may have had a lot going for him, but Huckabee did too, plus he was one of them. And McCain -- well, he was no minister, but at least he didn't think Jesus was Satan's brother.
Polls, like this one from last fall, showed that his Mormonism would hurt Romney significantly in South Carolina and likely elsewhere in Evangelical strongholds. Last year Christian groups circulated flyers at an Iowa straw poll bashing Romney for his religion -- certainly an ominous foretaste of his caucus defeat. And a recent Vanderbilt University study even suggested that many Evangelicals who complained about Romney's "flip-flopping" were using that as a cover for gripes about his faith.
What does this teach us? First, that voters make an investment of identity in their candidates. We're not just picking someone to do a job; we're looking for someone onto whom to project our values. For a sizable number of traditional Christians (represented most numerously by Evangelicals), there's some flexibility in making that choice -- the president can be divorced, he can be only a sporadic churchgoer, he can come from a different confessional tradition -- but not enough flexibility to embrace a candidate whose religion sets up a book parallel in authority to the Bible, and teaches that "Satan and Jesus are brothers."
Final thought: given the exodus of traditional believers from the Democratic Party, and the power of Evangelicals in the Republican Party, is there today enough flexibility to embrace a candidate whose religion sets up Sacred Tradition as a parallel to the Bible, calls Mary a "co-redeemer," and ascribes earthly spiritual authority to a prince in Rome?